Wednesday, May 31, 2006

yup. pictures. 20 days later...

I didn't realize I had so much catching up to do. But no worries. Got to it all now. And I didn't even bother to watermark them, or resize them. You're getting pretty good quality stuff here. Had to sacrifice on something.

I had to go over pretty much everything since I've been in the Netherlands! The sites are all linked one to the other, but here is a quick rundown:

Tue, May 09: Tilburg, Textile Museum
Wed, May 10: 's-Hertogenbosch
Thu, May 11: Utrecht
Fri, May 12: 12 of 12 in Tilburg
Sat, May 13: Region of Zeeland

Mon, May 15: Den Haag

Wed, May 17 through Tue, May 23: Madrid, Valencia, and around.

Fri, May 26: Den Haag
Sat, May 27: Tilburg
Sun, May 28: Rotterdam

Monday and Tue I took off. I needed to recharge. Lousy night. I am reaching the point where I start getting homesick. Which is silly, 'cause I don't have a home. At spots I get too depressed to keep traveling, I am emotionally drained, and traveling alone is no fun. But I am not likely to get this chance again, so I'm gonna milk it for all I can, even if I have to force myself through it. So, next up is Belgium, London... if the apt in Amsterdam works out, I will have 2 weeks to settle there. Oh. I just realized I should ask if there is internet!! I keep thinking it's a given... big mistake.

Today I also had the house all to myself, as my hosts went off Mon night to a conference for two days! Paaartyyyy!!! :D Eh, I mean, just kidding... nothing happened... yeah, Figment, don't worry... ;)

What I did do is take a chance, against Figment's advice (they all do butch haircuts here! It's terrible! Don't let them touch you!) to go to the local commercial center and visit the hairdresser... I figured I might as well fully live out the childishness I keep having tacked on me. After 2.5 hrs (!!) I got out with colored stripes and some extra layers... Maybe you'll get to see it in a new picture later.

Yup. Keep going. I can do it. I don't need no one.

Now all I'm missing is a good shoulders, neck, and back massage... maybe those are cheap here, too... *grin*

PS) Here is a public thx to those online that listened to me ranting... it helped a lot. Even though you are so far away, having your thoughts and comfort, or even just some distraction and company, made a big diff. And ppft to anyone that says otherwise.

Monday, May 29, 2006

wet culture

The rain continued on Sat, but I was on a roll. I had big plans to go to Rotterdam, but I'd have had to get up fairly early to make it there with enough time to see any museum... and that didn't quite happen. :P So by 12pm when I finally was ready to go out, I figured even if I stuck to the local area, I could get to see some cool stuff. In Tilburg I had skipped over the modern art museum, the De Pont. The rain seemed to have subsided, and the day couldn't be as bad as the previous one... so I made my way out, this time with my heaviest sweater, which also has a hood. Unfortunately, I forgot my umbrella...

By the time I made it to the center by bus and walked the km to the museum I was quite drenched. But walking into the place for free (well, pre-paid, kinda) and seeing the stuff there made up for it! I spent a couple of hours happily exploring the warehouse-like space, the current exhibit and the permanent collection. :) Trudging alone through Europe, I really think museums are the highlight of my travels. They refresh my spirit, inspire me, enrich my soul, they are safe for a lonely girl to hang out at, and oh so quiet...

So anyhoo, skip this paragraph if you plan on visiting the place and don't want the surprise ruined (hint hint Figment...). The coolest piece in there is one from their permanent collection. It's the only closed door in a row of doors that line one wall. An attendant will open it upon request and tell you to walk in but not to approach the black round shape in the middle of the room, just walk around it. It's a tiny room. (S)he will ask you what do you think it's made of. I guessed a piece of reeeally dark felt inset slightly into the marble floor. She told me to approach it slowly and try to touch the middle of it. Nothing was there! It's a hole 1m deep, and the inside is coated with blue india ink pigment, which is one of the densest things out there, and absorbs all light, reflecting nothing. It's quite a cool experience. The walls of the room next to it were *entirely* coated, and a shape floats inside... There were a couple of other light plays, another dark room... and 2 Bill Viola pieces, which I tend to be fascinated by. Overall a cool experience.

From there to the center in the continuous rain, checked out movie options, decided on the 8:45 Da Vinci Code, and had 2 hrs to kill. Roamed the streets, most stores were closed, not many people about. I ended up in the covered outdoors of the Bolle Cafe, munching and finishing a book. The movie was so-so, here in the Netherlands most movies are just subtitled. Unfortunately pieces of this one were in french and latin... and I didn't understand a word of the Dutch subtitles... so it kinda added to the boredom. Oh, and intermission... I can't believe they do that in movie theaters! For 15 mins 2/3 of the audience pours out to get snacks and I guess go to the bathroom. Worse thing was that the big blue screen reading "pauz" was right in the middle of the chase scene in the forest!! Pfft...

The late show gave me barely enough time to catch the last bus back home... luckily I learned my lesson from the one night I got lost, and stopped at a shopping center I was familiar with, and walked from there. A bit of a walk at 12:30am, but at least I knew where I was!

Since museums are closed on Mondays, I made an effort to wake up early today Sunday and go to Rotterdam. I slept on and off in the bus and trains there... but enjoyed the view of the city and the museum Boymans-van Beuningen. Rotterdam was bombed during WWII and most of it had to be reconstructed. So you see a lot of ultra-modern buildings next to the old ones. Pics will do it more justice than my words. Sad part: I put on my winter coat today. Good part: it didn't actually rain. The were moment when the sun actually peeked out!! I got hope for tomorrow...

The way back was way longer than it should have been. I kept missing trains and buses by minutes, and had to wait a whole half hour for the next one. And the worse is that I took a wrong train back and ended up in a completely wrong city, West of the region instead of East. 3.5 hours later I finally got back home, and almost went straight to sleep. But hung out with my hosts instead, who were doing major living room reorganization. And once I went upstairs I figured as long as I chilled in bed I'd have enough strength to blog. Maybe even get at those pictures... Ha! you thought I'd finally get them up, didn't ya? That's what Mondays are for... :P

Saturday, May 27, 2006

crappy weather

hmmmm... yeah... about them pics... *blush*

Well, while Thu was spent indoors again, in pajamas, cooking lasagna (which came out a little better than last time, I controlled the pasta situation a bit more, although not quite perfect yet...), Fri I figured it was not going to stop raining or get any warmer, so I might as well go somewhere else and try to get my tush back into motion. Since I left The Hague with museums unvisited, I headed off in that direction again. I managed to get to all 3 I had in my list, with a bit of a rush:

- the Genteenmuseum is kinda of a generic "a bit of everything" museum. Skimming through the decorative arts sections I learned a bit about the famous Delftware. In the basement are the Wonder Rooms, each one an interactive experience. Some pretty neat, some a bit lame. But pretty worth going with someone to play around a bit. Definitely good for children.

- The Mauritshuis was a slight disappointment. Even with my museum card I had to pay 4EUR. Good thing it included a "free" audio tour. If you want to listen to the whole thing, plan a couple of hours at least. But the place is tiny... Its claim to fame are a roomful of Vermeer's, including "Girl with a Pearl Earring", and another roomful of Rueben's. They had a temporary exhibit about Italian landscapes, but not from big name artists.

- The coolest one, and unfortunately the one I had the least time to explore (silly 5pm closing times...) was a permanent collection of Escher's work at the Palais Museum. Even though I had to pay full fee here (a whopping 7.50EUR!) I was only upset that I had to rush through the end of it, and I didn't get to try the interactive activities. I love this guy's stuff. This place was bigger that the Mauritshuis, and included photos he took of his family and places that inspired his work.

Since all cultural places were closed, I made a soggy and cold way to the warmth of home. A night of planning has given me a good list of possible next steps. I found out I can make my way by train and ferry to London for a decent price... So that should be coming up soon. And I've been looking into Belgium. Tomorrow through Wed it'll still be fairly soggy, so I'm trying to stick to museums. There are a couple of outdoor places that seem worth visiting... if only the sun would peek out!

Cool news: I am meeting a woman in Amsterdam on Wed, I might get her apt for free for 2 weeks, just as long as I take care of her cat... Which would be sweet, and it would give me time to explore that city, which has way too many things to see, and further north, which right now is kinda too far. Let's see how it goes and if it's worth it... this would place me in the Netherlands through the end of June...! Then I *really* have to make my way south... :P

Thursday, May 25, 2006

A vacation from the "vacation"

yeah, planning and traveling non-stop isn't quite a relaxing thing. Well, I have to admit every place I have stayed it's been an amazingly comfy time, and I haven't rushed one bit, even taking whole days off in between things... Hmmm. Well... so maybe I didn't quite need the vacation... Let's call it a "I wanted to do it so I did it 'cause I can" week... ;) Here's a brief recap. (Still no pics... sorry! working through a better process on those :P)

Trip to Spain was pretty sweet. Arrived Wed night after a very quiet flight (I think I am finally getting over my panic of flying that I developed a couple of years ago...) to a very warm Madrid. Netherlands' weather had been exceptionally nice, compared to all the horror stories I kept hearing about rain and more rain and chill... but Madrid was still a welcomed summer heat. After a day of rest, we took off on Fri to go to Valencia for the weekend. On the way we made a side trip to try out some geo-caching. Cris just got into this, so I'd been curious to try it out. I searched for something along the way, and one cache popped out: A trip to the Roman ruins of Valeria!! No kidding, spelled right and everything. The cache logs said it was probably defunct, but we had to go just for the experience, and to take pics :D After quite a bit of driving, and one wrong turn (i'm still working on my navigational skills... :P ) we reached the place a half hour before the sunset. No cache, but cool experience in a sleepy town in the middle of nowhere...

We finally arrived to the hotel past midnight, so we had a slightly late start on sat. We still managed to experience most of the City of the Arts and Sciences. Kinda did the same itinerary as i did 3-4 years ago when I visited the first time. We mistakenly thought we wouldn't have enough time to do everything (oceanografic, museum, imax theater), so we scheduled the museum for the next day. We ended up hanging around, chilly in the Valencia evening, for way too long, waiting for the 9pm showing of the IMAX thing... so, even though we arrived there at 2pm, if u have enough stamina, it's totally doable to see *everything* in just one afternoon. Even if the ticker lady raises an eyebrow at ya in disbelief, don't let her convince ya to split the itinerary over 2 days!

We didn't quite make time to visit the center of Valencia, or its beaches... Instead, on Sunday we got ourselves into a serious hike somewhere north of Valencia, pretty unprepared, had to buy a local map along the way, drove back and forth looking for things a couple of times, then had to hike uphill, me in long corduroy pants, with just a bottle of sugary water with us, under a pretty hot sun... but the final result was really worth it. Gorgeous view of the gulf of Valencia from a place in the middle of nowhere, and this time we did find the cache!! We made it back pretty late Sun night, past 11pm I think... but it was fun. Monday I caught up w/Angelitush and Ariel again, and Tue morning I was already flying back... such a quick trip...

Back in Holland after an afternoon of travel (plane delayed, then had to switch trains once 'cause I missed the direct one, and then a bus ride...) I arrived back to my Netherlands home town a little wet, but happy, refreshed by the sight of a full rainbow as I stepped out of the last train. Was gonna take a pic but I would have had to assemble my camera in the middle of the rush hour people traffic... so I took a good mental picture instead, basked in the happy feeling, and went to catch the bus in a rush, as it was leaving in the next 2 minutes! I arrived to the smell of barbecue, a small gathering of friends, and, tired but happy, I joined in.

Today Wed I just took the day off. I didn't do anything but get hooked to my computer, and spent time learning how to MUD. Prob a big mistake, as the combination of that, the lousy rainy windy coldish weather here, and the general "i dunno where to go next" feeling are not exactly conducive to travel... but I know I can't afford to slow down. Still got lots to go through!!

I'll try to get to pics tomorrow night... Promise! :P Tomorrow it's a holiday in Holland (didn't plan for that one... when you travel, be sure to keep up on the local holidays!!) so I'm not sure what the options are. I also have to make my way to Belgium, Northern Netherlands, Luxemburg, maybe Germany again... and figure out a cheap way to get to London and possibly Ireland... ideally all in the next 2-3 weeks. Then I get another week of "vacation" and then I'll head back down south, through France and finally to Italy...!

*yawn* man it's late. Ah well. NY time keeps creeping up on me ;)

Wednesday, May 17, 2006


Thu I ventured out to one of the major cities around, Utrecht. Got hooked up with a friend of Cris', Wsl, who was kind enough to use one of his vacation days to play tourist with me. We had a late start 'cause of an interesting glitch on the Dutch transportation system: they changed track number for the train we were supposed to catch, but rather than announcing it over the speaker or post it on the board, they had an employee walk up and down the track asking people individually whether they were looking for the train to Utrecht, and if so, they had to go to the other track... After missing the first train 'cause of time, and the second 'cause of this... we finally caught the third one and we were on our way!

Similar to Den Bosch, but on a bigger scale, Utrecht has a couple of water channels running through it, making for some very pretty scenery. Old architecture mixes with some modern buildings. The oddest mix was a house designed in the Mondrian style, the Rietveld Schröder House, which sits at the corner of a street full of old-school brick buildings.

After walking through the indoor commercial center that is attached to the train station, we found our way to the cathedral. Part of it collapsed at some point, so now they have a tower and further back what remains of the church as a separate, repaired entity. Rather than looking into a tour for that, we did a tour of the Speelklok museum, which had a special exhibit going on, bringing together from all over the world clocks that incorporated music. Some were true gems and I was impressed. Interesting bit about this museum: it's set in an old church. The percentage of re-purposed churches is actually pretty high in this country. They are often converted to museums or venues for random events.

Trying to look for the Mondrian house actually took us a good chunck of the afternoon, and had us walking through a gorgeous park, and reach the outskirts of the city. By the time we made it back to the center we were pretty hungry, and we were lucky to get a table at a restaurant on the Oudegracht, the oldest canal in the city. So we dined by the water on some Italianish kinda food. And it was yummy... :)

After dinner, what best than a smoke? Yeah, I know, I quit smoking... but how can you go to the Netherlands and not go through the experience of buying pot legally, and smoking it, too? We found a *koffeeshop* and I got a pre-rolled skunk joint. There wasn't exactly space in the cafe, so I asked if it'd be ok to just smoke on the street. Wsl didn't know, but we took a chance anyways. No one said anything, but I later found out that it's a big no-no. Technically, *all* drugs are illegal, even here. There's just a tolerance towards soft drugs in small quantities. So keep your smoking to the inside of a koffeeshop or the privacy of your own home, and don't do like ignorant me and go about the street thinking it's ok. As it had been my previous experience, pot did close to nothing to me. *shrug* I guess I should be glad I don't like it. So we went to look for a bar instead :)

The rest of the time we had before catching the last train back home at 11pm (no all-night public transportation...) we spent at a bar, picking up a conversation with a Dutch who had relocated to the Czech Republic. Pretty typical bohemian type, said he used to be a programmer... lol.

The trip back had one interesting bit to it. Trains were all good. No prob with getting back or connections... Then I had to take the bus. Turns out I had looked some info wrong, and the bus that stops in front of where I'm staying wasn't running anymore. There was one other line that passed nearby, but I didn't know where exactly. So I got on, told the driver I needed to be close to such and such street, and could he please let me know when we got there.

About 30 mins later, I'm the only one left on the bus, the driver has been text messaging throughout the whole ride, and I am getting nervous. He finally lets me off somewhere, telling me he *thinks* the street I'm looking for is that way... I figured it was a safe area, I had a small hand-drawn map of the main streets, and worse came to worse I did have a cell phone. So I start walking. And recognize nothing. I reach a dead end. I turn back. It's *really* quiet. No one is out. I see that there is a major road and once in a while a car goes by. I think "No problem!" I call Wsl and get his voicemail. I explain I need a hand with some google mapping... could he please call me back. I hang up. Accidentally shut off the phone. Cursing, I turn it back on. The SIM card needs a pin. What was it again? Something with 5... 5555? ...nope. 1234? ...nope. 5678? nope. *lock*. Now it needs a different, special code. Shit. Now I can't call. No one can call me. I'm still in the middle of what I think is nowhere. And no clue how to orient myself. Ah well. There's worse things than walking about on a mild night in a safe area in the middle of Europe all alone.

As I reach the street, debating how to flag a car down, I see water. Another one of those random water channels that are everywhere. Even out here in suburbia. Elated, as my friends' house was near one of them, I walk to it. Still don't recognize anything. Maybe there's more than one of these things around...

Determined, I keep going. And I hear voices! A group of teenagers is hanging out in the dark. Is it safe enough to talk to them? Probably not... It's 1am and they could be hooligans... Then again, this *is* a good neighborhood. And I can run. So I walk up to them, and say "Hi, I'm kinda lost, can you help me figure out where I have to go?" With my little hand-drawn map, the light of a cell phone, and their 3 heads together, after 5 minutes they figured out a direction for me to take. I thanked them and they saw me off wishing me luck. That went rather well. With some hope finally back, I walk down where they tell me. And find home only 3 blocks away! The light is on, all welcoming. Everybody sounds asleep, and I'm glad I didn't have to bother them. Yey for positive thinking! ...and for good luck ;)

Dutch culture and Den Bosch

Watch out for bikes. No, really. Cars, don't worry about. But be very afraid of bikers. They have priority at least 90% of the time in the Netherlands. Every road and every sidewalk has a corresponding bike path. Even highways. You are supposed to tell it apart from where you're walking, 'cause it's in clear, red bricks, contrasting with the grey of the sidewalk or pavement. *Supposed to.* Often, in older parts of cities, the bricks are the same color, you don't realize you're in a bike zone, and you have to run out of the way of a little bell. 'Cause they are not used to clueless people that stand in their way. They do not stop. They are the masters of transportation in this country.

Then there is credit cards. They are nearly useless here. Do *not* depend on them. The Netherlands work on debit. Not even supermarkets take credit cards. *Some* restaurants will, but they might charge you a fee for using it (and it's expensive)! My debit card didn't work here, so not sure if it's just a different system or what... And most vending machines (the train ticket ones, for example) will not take bills. So you either need lotsa coins, or you have to buy a chip card. Which is basically a pre-paid debit card. For Dutch people, it's linked to their local banck account. Not sure how tourists buy one... Do you go to an ATM, get money out, and give it to a vendor just so they can charge the cash onto the card? A bit redundant... but if you are spending any long amount of time here, you'll find yourself needing it.

On to the new places I visited: Wed, May 10, we went to Den Bosch, which is short for 's-Hertogenbosch [link to wiki]. The girls have been very cool and always ready to go places, no matter how far. With less than 9 months of age, I was very impressed on how agreeable both baby and mother have been to travel!

's-Hertogenbosch is a small but very pretty town, with a small system of water channels. (This, by the way, seems to be a regular setup for cities here. Amsterdam is designed around water, a detail I didn't know about before... but more on that later.) We didn't get to go on a boat tour, missing the last one 'cause it was sold out... nor did we get inside the cathedral, which is only open 1-3:30pm... Instead, we bought a walking tour of the town, and started to follow it. About half-way through we finally realized why we kept getting lost. The thing was 1) written in bad English, and 2) was meant for retarded people with no initiative. We kept walking further, thinking we were supposed to go a while to find the next turn... and always had to walk back to the last spot, 'cause the next step was only 3 meters away. :P

Cool thing about this town: it's the home town to Hieronymus Bosch, one of my favorite painters. He basically did what Dali did, surrealism... but in the Middle Ages! Cool stuff. We visited the local museum, which was aaight. And I made the effort of trying another fried Dutch food thing, the "bear claw". *Almost* managed to finish it... :P

Tilburg, Netherlands

I got a nice tour of Tilburg University on Monday. It is a quiet, small campus, and just walking through it you wouldn't know that it is renowned world-wide for its econometrics program. The glass corridors between buildings are especially pretty. And the lawns with wi-fi coverage all over even better :)

Today Tuesday was the first real venture into Tilburg proper. I took two buses, with Figment and her baby girl, to the center of town. Living here is almost like being out in the Long Island suburbs, by Suffolk. A bit out of the way, but with train access, small shopping center, main town small but with enough to cover more than the basic needs.

We visited the textile museum, which is actually pretty neat, and big. Tilburg is the Queen's official linens supplier (or at least they used to be. They still have official seals everywhere.. but I can't find any info in english online to confirm the fact...) The museum is still an active warehouse. And they also do translation of works of art to tapestries and rugs for artists. One project we saw was a 5X3m rug for a church. 2 people were assigned the job, working 16 hours a week each. With pattern in hand, and outlines traced on the canvas, they place individual strands of color to form details of the design, something a machine could not do, as it requires too many changes of colors. Estimated time to finish: 1 year! I didn't dare ask how much it costs to do this kinda stuff...

Evenings have been spent at home chilling with the family, planning trips and learning stuff. And relaxing, which I am always happy to do :) And I'm kinda back on NY time... ;)

Den Haag

After a tranquil Sunday, since the baby got sick (aaww), on Monday (May 15) I set out on my own to The Hague (Den Haag), a quick day trip. You can read the wiki for more details, and then read on to my impressions. This day, btw, was my 2 months anniversary since arriving to Europe! :D

I went there with a general idea in mind. I have the museumcaard (a 30EUR value that lasts the whole year and lets you into most museums for free, or at least at a reduced discount!) and there is a small but famous museum there, with several masterpieces. And then there is Maduradam, a cool miniature city with buildings and sightseeing spots recreated in small scale. I figured, even if I only got these two things in, the trip would be worth it.

While in the train I spend some time going over the guide, thinking of a route to take. I happen to read up on the museum. I note there is a schedule. I read it, just to have an idea of how to organize things. Tue-Sun. ...Tuesday? Hmmm, and today is... doh! I should have known this. Mondays is often a day off for museums!! My plan just went puff. Ah well. I'm already half-way there. I'll at least get to see the city itself, and the miniature city.

I get there no problem, and I used my not-too-detailed map of the city from the guidebook to navigate to my first sight-seeing spot by way of the library (free, clean bathrooms and a detailed map of the city ;) ). The town at first felt a bit disappointing. Not many tourists around, and I had a not-quite-so-safe feeling overall. So I kept my manner purposeful, kept the camera in my bag, and tried to look not like a tourist. The buildings around weren't exactly striking, so I had no urge to play tourist anyways. Then I got to the Town Hall. It is a typical stairs-roof Dutch style corner building, which I really like, and it was just really neat. From there through the Dutch Parliament buildings (Het Binnenhof) and by the Museum Mauritshuis, sitting on a mini lake, reflecting in the water, I was fascinated. I did a lot of walking, and did manage to get into one museum, the Panorama Mesdag. Not much to it, but the main dish is worth the entrance price. A circular room with a 360 degrees painting! You are in a circular platform in the middle, sand is around you to the wall, and the wall is just a giant painting of the town nearby, on the water, as seen from a sand dune.

Another long walk through a forest (*real* nice, if it wasn't for the still not-so-safe feeling... I think some guys were harassing me from afar, but I didn't understand a word... so not sure...) I reached Maduradam! This is pretty neat. The best was to see miniatures of places I had already visited in real life, and then I got inspiration of new places to visit. I must have spent 2 hours there. I got a cute little souvenir by putting a coin in a box near a reproduction of a ceramics fabric, and a little truck brought it over to me, after the mini clogs fell into its cargo hold from a chute. :D

Right now it's 1am of Tue night (technically Wed) and I had a quiet day shopping and having dinner out. Tomorrow I am flying back to Madrid, I'm taking a vacation from my "vacation"... :D Going to spend 6 days of fun in Madrid and Valencia! Yey!

...and as I go to publish the blog entries for the whole past week... I just realized that all the work I did yesterday night, of pulling photos and creating sites for them, disappeared. When I came home earlier tonight I had some problems with my computer and had to force-quit stuff and restart... The work hadn't been saved!! :(

So pictures will be forthcoming... sorry.

Hasta la vista, babies. Madrid, here I come! \^o^/

South West Netherlands: Zeeland

Saturday, May 13 - The best part about visiting a new country where you know people that live there is to see the places through their eyes. Not the touristy gimmicks (which can be fine once in a while, but they get frustrating) but the actual life of locals. I'm still in awe by how lucky I am.

Today we visited the in-laws, who moved to a very picturesque section of the Netherlands. The region of Zeeland is famous for the Delta works, the massive dikes that keep the seas at bay. There were two major catastrophes related to storms and the sea ravaging towns and people... 1/3 of the country is actually below sea level! So the Dutch took it to hearth to dominate the waters, and set to build this huge complex of barriers. On the way we stopped a couple of times, near dikes, to observer their impressiveness.

Once we arrived to Veere, the first order of the day was to shower the baby with presents and attention and all that cute family stuff. The mother-in-law shared an amazing collection of engravings by a renowned local artist. She even had her portrait done by him when she was a little child. Then we set out to walk the town. It's right on the sea, so it has a pier and gorgeous scenery. Since it's a small town, now dependent on tourism, it was easy to take a leisurely walk through the whole place in only about 2 hours. It felt good. It was peaceful, gorgeous, the sun was shining... My soul re-energized today!

We made our way back in the early evening, through the non-scenic route. Still pretty, though. Saw some old-fashioned windmills along the way, and had yet another chance to appreciate Holland's flatness :)

Yey for side trips!

Tuesday, May 09, 2006


On Sunday afternoon Frank and Steffi drove me over the border, to my first Dutch city, Nijmegen, and spent the afternoon with me. They had me try my first typical dishes. Apparently this country is all about fried stuff. Especially fried unidentified meat.

They tell me what I had was Frietjes met Frikandel Speziaal en Kroket. You can read the wiki on Dutch food, or simply believe me when I say they're quite... odd. The kroket, especially, which is this almost slimy, mashed meat-and-stuff mix, shaped into a ball or a thick finger, and deep fried... And they are often sold in machines built into the walls. Look the wiki up for the explanation on that one.

While Nijmegen is quite small, it had all the indications of the typical Dutch culture which I have come to identify in my 2 days here:
- bikes are a key transportation system. I could not believe the sea of metal frames by the train station. I've never seen so many altogether. And on bike paths, they have precedence over pedestrians. And stairs have special wheel-sized channels to make it easier to drive the bike up and down. Very well planned. So you better keep your eyes open and jump out of the way of all wheeled transportation systems!
- driving, people coming from your right have precedence. I am told it's quite disorienting at first. Even the Germans were cursing.

Oh! And I forgot about the autobahns in Germany! No speed limit felt so right. And crossing over the border to Holland, the difference was incredible. No wonder cops patrol the border areas closely, looking for German license plates... Also, the whole legal marihuana thing keeps the border patrol busy. Many sick people, disabled or terminally ill, cross the border to find medical relief.

ok, back to my list of all things Dutch:

- Most cars seem to have a hook in the back. It seems quite common for a Dutch to own a caravan and travel Europe for vacation like that. I remember something similar in Italy when I was tiny...

Ah, just in case anyone was as ignorant as I was before this trip... some clarifications on names:
- The country is called "The Netherlands" [link to wiki].
- "Holland" is a region of the Netherlands.
- In many languages they don't care about this, and use "Holland" to mean the whole country (in Italian it's done that way. They also translate "Netherlands" to something like "The Low Countries")
- The adjective to mean something from this country is "Dutch". Which really confused me at first, as I thought I was going to Denmark. 'Cause "Dutch" doesn't sound like it's related to either "Netherlands" nor "Holland"... you can look up the etymology of that word on wikipedia, too, under Dutch language.

Here are a few pics of the Netherlands. Sorry for the lack of close-ups. Kinda just trying to get things out there :P

I have yet to see the coffeshops from close up (where they sell pot) but I'm guessing that'll be an experience for either Amsterdam when I get there, or in Utrecht this Thu.

Uff! All caught up yet? I took today off, we just did a quick bus trip to the university campus, and a drive to get food. Tomorrow we're going for the local museums. Wed I'm venturing out further, and Thu I should be hopping all the way to another major city.

I am starting to get a bit further into unknown territory. I started in a country where I knew the language and was familiar with things... Then in France I started loosing language, but still was able to muddle through some of it. Germany, and now especially Holland, are completely foreign to me. I barely understand "hello". I can't decipher any words based on the other languages I know. And the way they do things makes me feel like a child learning basic social customs again. Definitely getting more frustrating. And I am definitely glad for the continuous support of friends! This trip is such a pleasant experience thanks to all of them! I can't imagine doing this on my own and in unknown accommodations...

More Dutch culture and impressions tomorrow. 'Til then!

drive-by Germany

May 6, 2006: 6 hours after leaving Paris by train, I was in Dusseldorf. Frank picked me up at the station, and drove 45 mins to their place, out in the countryside, near the border with Holland. Big difference between the cities and here! It's all nice and quiet and idyllic... They have horses and a dog and a cat and guinea pigs and there's sheep around... although we actually haven't spent much time here. After only half an hour after arriving we drove right back out to Dusseldorf to visit the town. No pics of that night, unfortunately, I was told it wouldn't be safe to bring my camera there... turned out it would have been fine. I would have just looked like a stupid tourist, which is ok, I am, after all... ;)

It's a big drinking town, there are several pedestrian roads with bar after bar, of all different kinds. A bit like Madrid, but the streets are much wider, and there aren't any annoying "chupito" people trying to get you into each bar. We walked through the Promenade, which is basically the street by the Rhine river, also filled with bars and people just hanging out and drinking. Cool sight-seeing spot: across the river you see the TV tower, tallest building around, and it has a lights-clock along its length. They explained how to read it, and they said it's the biggest digital clock in the world! Pretty neat.

The rest of the night was spent bar-hopping. Typical things: bachelor parties. Apparently everyone that gets married around here comes to Dusseldorf with t-shirts customized to have the groom-to-be's name, and they start the day doing stupid stuff (like putting on a diver's outfit and slosh around a public fountain in front of the cathedral of Cologne, fishing for things the others throw at you...) and then bar-hopping, asking people to participate in different ways, like paying to kiss the future groom, or asking to be bought a drink... all I saw was lotsa drinking and singing and making noise...

Other typical thing: coasters have an extra use in the bars of Dusseldorf. Waiters use them as tabs, to keep track of how many beers or drinks they brought you. With a pencil they write down a price, and then start putting lines around the edges. They keep going around 'til it doesn't fit anymore. Then they switch to a new coaster, and I saw a waiter just write the previous amount in roman numerals, before continuing to notch around.

Last typical thing: If you ask for beer, as soon as you have about 2 gulps left in the glass, they don't even ask if you want another one, they just take your glass away and put down another. If you don't want them to bring more, either leave the glass half full (don't let it get too low!) or put a coaster on top.

I thought Germany was a big beer place. It actually has a very scarce selection. But it's supposed to be really good, and most bars will have home-brews, kinda like wines in italy, where most restaurants will have a house wine.

The night was quite uneventful. We sat down at several places until fairly late, catching up, people-watching, talking about culture and places. The only random interruptions were from a guy who tried to pick up a fight with Frank over something stupid. A waiter was called and the guy was kicked out... I didn't understand a word. *shrug*

At the same place, there was a girl going around with a breathalizer. For 2EUR you could test your blood alcohol. Frank clocked in at about 0.8, while I clocked in at 0.67! Which is so not fair, he drank sooo much more than me, I was only on my 2nd real beer. Before that I had a mini generic german beer, a shot of Killepitsch (damn nasty strong stuff!) a non-alcoholic jeger[?] beer, and a couple of beer coctails, one with sprite, one with coke. (They were trying to get me to like their beer... they didn't have any other kind! lol.) I finally discovered a Weisse. Which came in a huge glass only, though... After two of those and a bottle of Grolsh, I said enough.
Our designated driver Steffi, who had a baby 5 months ago and still can't drink, patiently hung out with us and then drove us the 45 minutes back, some time around 3am I *think*...

German words I learned tonight: "Ich rauche nicht. Yep. Prost!" ;)

Next day, even though we all wished for more sleep, we got up at a decent time and headed out to Cologne (Köln in German!). The drive there was a bit longer, and my poor stomach and head made sure to remind me all day how much fun I had the night before... ugh. With baby in tow, we first had something to eat, to try and gain some strength, and then headed off to the famous Cologne Cathedral... Inside it was pretty much the same as every other gothic-style church I visited, like Notre Dame and St Denis, maybe just with more space... but the outside was huge, very detailed, and impressive. I think it's the most elaborate one I've seen so far. Plus interesting history behind it (read the wiki)

I forgot to look up on my trusty guide any info, so I had no clue on what other places Cologne is famous for. We headed towards a museum that was supposed to have a Rembrandt and a Durer... but the entrance was 8EUR (the Louvre was that expensive!) and it was deserted, so we decided to skip it. We walked by the Promenade, not as pretty as Dusseldorf's, but relaxing. Wasn't much talk today, we all were kinda tired and lacked the energy... :P

After a lazy stroll about we drove back. We stopped home, then went out again to pick up their other car from being serviced. On the way back, my stomach finally gave way. I had to ask Frank to pull over, he quickly veered into a driveway and I walked out and threw up lunch and whatever else had managed to stick around from the night previous.

By the time we got home it was already 9pm. Instead of having dinner we hung out in the living room and watched pictures and videos, of their wedding, of trips and events, and of my trip. Before we knew it it was 11:30pm! So we all retired for a much needed night of sleep.

Despite my weak stomach, I tried a couple of german dishes while I was here: on Fri the "Sauerbraten mit Knödel und Apfelmus". The second dish, on Sat, is the one that didn't survive my nausea: "Kohlroulade mit Kartoffelpürree." I think I should have tried the stuff I knew from the German restaurant I tried in NY, to have something to compare it against. Ah well, I'll have to go back.

Also, I learned about the Dutch/German interactions. Their languages are similar enough, but they make fun of each other and in general seem to have a rivalry that goes back centuries... kinda like north vs south of Italy, or Dusseldorf's vs Cologne's beer...

Ah, and here I saw my first (and hopefully last) old-style Dutch toilets, the ones with a "shelf" instead of a hole inside... (picture here) so your business is nicely on display for ya to inspect before you flush... Definitely odd. And smelly. Oh, wait, no, that was me. lol.

I'm off to Holland tomorrow, already. In the afternoon I'm going to be driven to Nijmegen, which is only 15 mins away, and I will probably find a train to my next temporary home...

Cool places to come back for: Duisburg (I think) for a castle/goth club where they have medieval dinners once a month...


Oh, and here are some pics. Sorry I didn't bring the camera to Dusseldorf! :P

goodbye paris... for now

Tuesday through Friday in Paris were filled with more fun, food, and sight-seeing. I am lagging a bit on the blogging... so this one is gonna be a quickie.

Let's see, Tue, May 2: no clue what i did during the day... i know i went out, 'cause i was supposed to prepare the crepes' batter, and i left a note about going walking and hopefully being back ontime... but where did i go without my camera...? probably walked about st denis. oh, to buy saffron. then ingredients for lasagna. and i walked to a local park, and then back through a Cemetery, where a guy told me to go a diff way 'cause he had just closed the gates. We spent the night making crepes, with a bunch of people over.

Wed, May 3: met with irina to go to parc st cloud. pretty, and huge. walking through it, we talked about living in paris, expenses, taxes, salary... then guys, relationships, people... then she had to go to work, so i got onto the tram and went to the defense on my own. then back home and made rice with saffron.

Thu, May 4: woke up late to make lasagna. prepared sauce, then went out for a last day of sight-seeing in Paris. Original plan: Musee Orsay, Notre Dame, Pompidour. First was mobbed so i didnt go it. Second i went in and was disappointed. third didn't have time to go in, but it was actually cool to walk around it, really nice area of paris. got back early to finish lasagna, which came out too pasta-y! :( but sauce was good... :D

Fri, May 5: last day! woke up too late, ran around st denis to buy a gift, flowers and vase, then ran to the train station to meet ana, who saw me off. hugs and goodbyes and a promise to come back :)

For time's sake, I condensed all pics in one page.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

it was a cold and dreary weekend...

well, most of it. we did see some sun yesterday late afternoon. But I'm jumping ahead. Let's start with Sat, when, after the usual late start, I quietly stepped outside into St Denis to be out of the way when Ana's in-laws came in. I figured for one, I'd be in the way, as they'd go through all the social greetings, settling in, catching up... and for two, I suck at social group happenings. So rather than be uncomfortable and sit there trying to nod and smile, I'd keep myself busy with the Basilica of St Denis. (btw, I'm going to try and link to wikipedia articles of the place I visit from now on, so I don't have to fill in too many cultural bits...)

Basilica St Denis
(You can click on the pic at left to see more. I'm upgrading my blog ;) ) It is only a 10 minutes walk from where I'm staying, and for 6EUR I gained access to the necropolis and crypt, which house the tombs of several kings and other nobles of France. You can tell the most important ones have full statues of the royalty praying. Lesser nobles are depicted just lying down on top of slabs, pets at their feet, or weapons in hand for some men. Other cool things were the stained glass windows. of the two big round ones, one had the zodiac wheel on it. And the crypt, where they seemed to either still be digging, or they left it intentionally hole-y. When I walked back outside, I finally figured out what was the fenced construction area in front, in the middle of the street. A camera crew and ppl with mics were explaining about a new discovery of bones that somebody was going to donate money to investigate. I peeked through and saw partially uncovered skeletons. Neat :)

Since that took only an hour, I started walking about, trying to find a nearby park I had seen on a map. It was getting damn cold (first day I busted out the scarf and my one heavy sweater, and a turtle neck...) so after a couple of failed attempts at finding the place I walked back.

The evening was a pleasant dinner with the whole family, who spoke a couple of words of English. Coupled with my couple of words in French, we managed to have some conversation. After a while it reverted to all French, which I paid attention to a little but it got to be too much for my brain to process. :P

Eiffel tower at night
Sunday I dared go out. With Irina, my walking companion, we tried the Chateau de Vincennes, which was a disappointment. It's under construction, so the inside is closed. For 7EUR you can enter just the chapel. Which, we figured, was not worth it. I took a couple of quick shots in the rain, but we ran back to the metro soon after, to find an museum we could dry ourselves in.

Next stop was the Rodin Museum. Now, this is the kinda place I'd buy and make my home if I had an insane amount of money. Smack in the middle of Paris, it's a gorgeous huge house, with beautiful gardens, half in the symmetrical french style, but half it's a little forest with tall trees and a spot to tan... *sigh* so pretty. Even in the rain and cold I was happy. Now I just gotta work on those billions, and figure out where to relocate the museum so the world doesn't kill me. :P

After a stop at a cafe to recharge energy and the stomach, the sun finally made an appearance. Refreshed, we walked toward the Eiffel Tower, passing through Les Invalides, but not paying to go in. I already saw a cool exhibit of arms and armor in Madrid, I could leave this one for another occasion. By the time we made it past the Eiffel tower and to the Esplanade (a hill/park/building in front from where you get a better view of the tower) we figured it was actually still a good idea to get the Bateaux-Mouches, the "fly-boats", that for 8EUR tour the Seine for an hour, pointing out spots along the way. Irina suggested it'd be best at night, so we hung out at a McDonalds 'til 9:30. The tour was cold (this weekend was chilly!) but very nice. I even managed to get better pics of the Eiffel tower than when I was on land!! And the weirdest thing: a miniature version of the Statue of Liberty from NY...

I made it home mad late, around midnight, so next morning I missed the in-laws leaving early, and woke up right as Ana and Nico were having lunch. We spent the day at home, playing cards and planning a week of gastronomic exploits... tonight we made frog legs and snails (I cooked!!), tomorrow it's crepes, and wed and thu it's my turn with some italian cuisine with risotto allo zafferano (rice with saffron) and some of my famous lasagna!

Frog legs
On the frog legs and escargot: they bought frozen stuff at the supermarket, and we made them ourselves. the snails were pre-sauced, so they just had to go into the oven to roast... they do taste much like mussels, which I love... it's my second time trying them. The first time I couldn't get over thinking they were slimy things... this time I enjoyed them, much like I would enjoy calamari... The frog legs were kinda like chicken wings. Well, less meat. A bit of a crab meat taste. Very slight. But overall yummy. We didn't make them properly I think, but still enjoyed the whole lot. :) yey for my hosts giving in to my crazy french stereotypes cravings! (French ppl have them maybe once a yr... not as a regular thing. lol)